Ron Howard brings us a mediocre film that seemed like a guaranteed hit.
The Vances are an Appalachian family who moved to Middletown, Ohio first under Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance (Glenn Close) and her husband Papaw (Bo Hopkins) three generations prior to the present. J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso/Owen Asztalos) is a law student at Yale who is informed on the day before a major interview that his mother, Bev (Amy Adams), is in the hospital from a heroin overdose. He goes back home to help his sister, Lindsay (Haley Bennett), deal with Bev. As he goes home, he flashes back to his youth as his family started to fall apart and he ended up being raised by his grandmother.
This movie should have been called “Oscar Bait,” because that’s clearly what it was supposed to be. It’s a sad, true story adapted from a book about poor people in Appalachia, drug use, and overcoming the odds that was directed by Ron Howard and stars Glenn Close in a role where she is hardly recognizable. Throw in Amy Adams doing an accent and playing a drug addict and everyone knows this film was going to get multiple statues. Unfortunately, it turns out that no matter how many guaranteed award ingredients you put in, you can still wind up with a big plate of mediocrity.
I’ll go ahead and say it, maybe whoever adapted this book to film didn’t quite understand it. Vanessa Taylor, the screenwriter, was the author of The Shape of Water, so clearly she knows what she’s doing in general, but the book Hillbilly Elegy is extremely personal and incredibly pointed criticism of society through the eyes of J.D. Vance. He mostly just uses his family as a way to explore the state of Appalachia and the politics he blames for the problems there. Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, but I will admit that it is a well-written memoir that shows how well Vance can sell an anecdote as evidence. Since he’s a lawyer, that’s a useful skill, even though that kind of thing often results in people attributing the wrong causes to effects. Regardless, it’s hard to dissociate the anecdotes and the stories that Vance relates with the commentary and the commentary only works because of the personal relationship the author has with the story. It would require someone with a similar relationship to bring this book to film and I don’t think either Taylor or Ron Howard had it. They tried to take the politics out of it, which makes sense for an adaptation, but that means the only story that remains is an overdone mess.
The film is pretty unfocused. It tries to tell stories about J.D., Bev, and J.D. as a child, but it never really gets us involved in any of them. We know that J.D. will eventually get to Yale Law School so we’re always expecting that moment when he buckles down and takes control of his life. When it happens, the movie doesn’t feel like it’s hitting a climax, but instead just hitting a beat. Most of the scenes are like that, and it robs the movie of a lot of the emotional investment.
Glenn Close, though, almost saves this movie at times. Her performance is so very dedicated and powerful that it stands out quite a bit from the rest of the crowd. When, at the end of the film, you’re shown images of the real Mamaw, she appears to look and move almost exactly like Close’s performance. Close goes into the role almost as much as Gary Oldman did in his performance as Winston Churchill in The Darkest Hours. Given how much people complain about Glenn Close’s lack of an Oscar and how few films have come out this year, I hope the Academy finally gives her her due.
Overall, though, this film just ended up being pretty middle of the road. I really can’t recommend it. If you can deal with the politics, read the book, but otherwise just let this one go.
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